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Does the DA's Office Have an Open-Door Policy? Pardon, Open-File Policy.

Friend of Unfair Park Scott Henson, who runs the terrific legal-issues blog Grits for Breakfast, has a suggestion for Dallas County District Attorney-elect Craig Watkins: "The new Democratic DA should announce an 'open file' policy similar to the one" in place in Tarrant County. The Austin-based Henson, riffing on a single-sentence suggestion posted yesterday in the comments section at Dallas Blog, writes that "creating an open-file policy would offer both symbol and substance to Watkins' promises for reform, without cleaning house or disrupting the work of the office. And since his new first assistant [Terri Moore] has experience working under an open-file system in Fort Worth, the transition should go smoothly."

Such a policy, of course, guarantees that defense attorneys have complete access to prosecutors' files, from which they can copy anything they need. But if you look at Dallas Blog, there seems to be an argument about whether the Dallas County District Attorney already employs such a policy. And, after the jump, Bill Hill's spokesperson also weighs in.

One anonymous commenter there insists "it's been in place for years. And even if they didn't have such a policy, prosecutors remain under the duty to comply with all requirements of Brady v. Maryland, as well as all statutory requirements pertaining to the disclosure of information to the defense."

But another poster, whose name suggests he or she is a public defender, disagrees completely, saying it's less a policy than a courtesy extended by only some of the prosecutors some of the time. "They give you what they want to give you and nothing more," writes "txpublicdefender," and his/her motion's seconded by another public defender we do know.

As Matt Pulle wrote in the paper version of Unfair Park in November, Watkins did promise while on the campaign trail to institute a true open-file policy, "which allows defense attorneys to have access to parts of the prosecution's criminal case, including police reports and witness statements." But local defense attorneys -- a job Watkins used to hold, with great pride -- are waiting to see whether it actually happens. As Matt also mentioned, in Tarrant County, the policy is said to speed up the prosecution of cases and serves as "a key safeguard in preventing the conviction of innocent people by allowing the defense counsel to -- here's a revelation -- mount an adequate defense."

Meanwhile, Rachel Raya, the public information officer in the Dallas County District Attorney's office, tells Unfair Park this morning that Bill Hill already has instituted such a policy. "We do have one, but it's not like, 'Here's our DA's file, you can look at our notes,'" she says. "There are specific things that are open, that are shared with the defense, but it's according to what's legal and ethical." Or convenient, complain public defenders. Raya promised to fax over the policy as soon as she found it. Till then, don't get arrested. --Robert Wilonsky

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